June 6, 2002
This Land Is Our Land
Parshat Shelach (Number 13:1-15:41)
You cannot remove other people's anxieties, but sometimes you can help them to understand their feelings of unease and find ways to cope with them.
In my work with rabbinical students, I have faced the challenge in recent weeks of helping one particular group to sort out its fears and emotions about studying in Jerusalem this fall. Recently, we held a videoconference between our students going to study in Israel next year and those who are there now. Next year's class members are understandably concerned, vacillating between the passion they have for Israel and their fears for their personal safety and security. Seeing and talking to their colleagues in Jerusalem gave them a picture of what life is like in Israel on a daily basis.
After the videoconference, the students felt relief: their colleagues were relaxed; they laughed, they looked great. They studied, shopped, and watched television, living a life of regularity and routine. Yes, there is anxiety, tension, trepidation, grief, anger. But that falls into the background. The tasks of daily living become predominant, allowing them to immerse themselves in their studies and in developing their love for Israel. The students in Israel articulated how profound their year in Israel has been, in spite of the situation. It has strengthened their commitment to Israel, and it will influence how they conduct their rabbinates in the future.
The American students' experience in Israel is similar to the Israelis who live there permanently. They go about their daily lives in a routine fashion, but always with the knowledge that their world is not truly routine right now. The tension the Americans feel is real. That anxiety is all the more so for the Israeli soldiers, the families of the soldiers, the citizens of the land. This is a picture of Israel today.
The first picture we have of Israel after the Exodus from Egypt is in this week's Torah portion, "Shelach." Moses sent 12 men to see what kind of country it was. He knew the land was good. After all, God told him at their first meeting that it was "a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey." What was the purpose of this mission? What could be gained?
The medieval commentator, the Ramban (Nachmanides) cites two possibilities. He reminds us that for anyone waging war in a foreign land, it is prudent to send scouts to survey that land. The Israelites created a reconnaissance party to advise the troops on which city to attack first and from which direction it would be easiest to capture the land. Sending the spies was a wise and pragmatic way to deal with the military factor of entry into the land.
Moses could also have sent the scouts to confirm what he already knew, that it was indeed a good land. The people would surely be feeling insecure, facing unknown dangers. A confirmation such as this would give the people reason to anticipate and rejoice as they approached the unknown. In his wisdom, Moses addressed this psychological uncertainty by providing emotional support.
What did the spies see in this first look at the land? They reported a land of abundance, flowing with milk and honey. They also said it was filled with men who were like giants, a place that would consume its settlers. Yet two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, vehemently disagreed. They declared the land a good one and that the people should not fear the inhabitants. The Israelites would be able to conquer them, with God's protection as God had promised.
What do we see when we scout out Israel today? We can either see a land fraught with danger, a place that we would not want to enter. Or we can see the land as Joshua and Caleb did, a land that is very, very good. We can see it through the eyes of A. J. Heschel, the modern philosopher, who said, "Israel is an accord of divine promise and human achievement." This is the picture the students going next year see; this is the perspective of those who live there: a place of inspiration and holiness, our Jewish home.
We can be like Moses, providing needed support to those who dwell in the land. We can lend our voices to the political, strategic arena, remaining informed, being advocates to government officials, and expressing our opinions to the media. We can provide the emotional support that is so greatly needed by making personal contact, attending public events, donating funds, visiting Israel. (See the Federation's list of 10 Things You Can Do for Israel on www.jewishla.org.) Even though Israel is geographically distant, she is Jewishly close. We can be part of her intimate caring community, sharing her joy as well as her anxiety. Ultimately, we can have hope, faith and belief that the land is good and that she will always remain part of our heritage and our future.